Saturday, January 10, 2009

Culturally Moderate Majority Part 2: That Newsweek Poll On Gay Rights

Last month, Newsweek did a great poll on gay rights issues. The poll gives us the most detailed picture of Americans' views on these issues that I've ever sBlogger: By The Time I Get to Arizona - Edit Post "Culturally Moderate Majority Part 2: That Newsweek..."een. And what it depicts is a large moderate majority. To the numbers!

The top-line issue, full marriage rights, is still a hard sell. Respondents turn down "legally-sanctioned gay and lesbian marriages," 39%-55%. "Legally-sanctioned gay and lesbian unions or partnerships," however, win approval by 55%-36%. Now, here's where the numbers get a little odd. When respondents are asked which comes closest to their views: "full marriage rights," "civil unions or partnerships, BUT NOT marriage rights," or "no legal recognition," responents are split into even thirds (31% for marriage, 32% for unions, 30% for no recognition).

So 63% favor AT LEAST civil unions and only 31% prefer marriage to all other options. Yet when the question is just "unions, yes or no?" or "marriage, yes or no?" the numbers are 55% and 39%, respectively. What's going on here? Is it just some error inherent in this poll? A cursory look at says otherwise. These questions yield similar results in other polls.

What appears to be going on is that unions have become a unifying, moderate position. Only 55% prefer unions to not-unions, when that is the question. But when unions are offered as the "moderate" position, between marriage and no recognition, 63% support At LEAST unions. Opposition to unions is 36% when that is the question, but when no recognition is the most conservative of three options, only 30% oppose any legal recognition.

This poll allows us to rank the preferences of groups of respondents. To do so, we make some simple assumptions. Anyone who ranks gay marriage first, will also prefer unions to no recognition. Likewise, anyone who prefers no recognition will prefer unions to gay marriage. We also assume that no one changes their position from one question to the next. And for simplicity, we assume that the very small "no position" group is composed of the same respondents for each question.

The profile of the 32% plurality for unions is interesting. As stated above, 8%, or one quarter of them, favor marriage to no recognition, but also prefer unions to marriage. Depending on which question is asked, they are the most moderate 20% of marriage supporters, or the most gay-friendly 25% of union supports. They are okay with supporting gay marriage, but would prefer not to. Another group of about 8% marks the most conservative quarter of union supporters. This group is the most interesting because they oppose unions when it's a simple yes or no question, but support it as one of three options. Perhaps when the question was "legally-sanctioned partnerships," they heard "marriage" and got nervous. Then the three choice question made their choices clear and they were comfortable supporting unions. Whether this because of a real position "in defense" of marriage or simply an instinct for moderation, it looks like about 8% of Americans can be moved to support unions if they are presented as a compromise position.

Perhaps the lesson here is that unions should be presented as a moderate, "compromise" position until demographic changes and evolving cultural views give full marriage a solid majority (18-34 year olds favor marriage 51%-40%). The poll numbers suggest some risk to that strategy, however. When asked just about marriage, 39% of Americans are willing to support it. And this number is steadily climbing. Offering unions as a compromise, splits off 8% of Americans and might make marriage a minority position forever by salving the consciences of Americans who want gay couples to have rights but are uneasy about democratizing marriage.

Finally, some mention has to be made of the approximately 16% of respondents that are consistent in their support of unions and their opposition to both marriage and non-recognition. This group is well-versed in the debate, they are not confused by questions that eliminate one of the three options. More polling is necessary to determine if this group is shrinking (and, presumably, turning towards full marriage), expanding (as marriage opponents become persuaded by the rights argument) or holding steady.

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